The Floods of 1953: Bravery on a night of death and destruction

The Beckerton family, who lost Peter Beckerton in the 1953 floods

The Beckerton family, who lost Peter Beckerton in the 1953 floods - Credit: Archant

At the end of it all, Norfolk and Suffolk was left to count the cost, in terms of death, destruction, a devastated landscape and for many coastal towns and villages an economy and infrastructure that lay in tatters.

PeterBeckerton who died in the 1953 floods

PeterBeckerton who died in the 1953 floods - Credit: Archant

In the 1953 special flood awards, the Queen recognised the gallantry of more than 70 people, from housewives to firemen, policemen, garage proprietors, service personnel and lorry drivers.

Organisations such as the RSPCA and St John Ambulance Brigade handed out honours too.

Behind each honour was a dramatic – and often a tragic – story.

Perhaps the saddest went to 19-year-old Peter Beckerton for his courage at Snettisham.

While his mother Vera, who later received the British Empire Medal, struggled to keep afloat a boatload of children, Peter set out to rescue neighbours from a bungalow.

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He never made it and his body was recovered days later. Peter Beckerton received the Albert Medal posthumously.

It was sometime before the final death toll for Norfolk and Suffolk was known. In the early stages, no-one really knew who was missing, who had died and who had escaped. In some cases it was months before all the bodies were recovered.

In Norfolk, exactly 100 people died – Hunstanton (32 – including 17 Americans), Snettisham (25), King's Lynn (15), Yarmouth (9), Heacham (9), Sea Palling (7), Salthouse (1), Wiveton (1) and Watlington (1).

In addition five died at Southwold and 11 were lost from the Lowestoft trawler Guava.

Later one person died from exposure at Lowestoft and a Wroxham man was killed in a bulldozer accident on flood relief work.

Along the Norfolk coastline, more than 5,000 homes were either destroyed or damaged.

In Felixstowe, the waters broke through at between 12.30am and 1am on the Sunday morning of February 1, while most people were asleep, oblivious to the disaster. There were 40 dead. Elsewhere there were reports of 41 dead in Lincolnshire and 155 in Essex (including 58 in Canvey Island, a place were all 13,000 people who lived there were made homeless).

As the rescue and clearing up operation began, the Queen and Prince Philip, who were staying at Sandringham at the time, toured the areas worst hit.President Eisenhower sent a message of sympathy.

The floods were acknowledged as East Anglia's worst peacetime disaster and Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared it a National Disaster.

One of the most dramatic views of the disaster was from the EDP's Steve Amyes and chief photographer Don Rudd who flew over the disaster in a chartered aircraft and took so many of the pictures that today form the definitive record of the 1953 flood.

From the twin-engined de Havilland Rapide by-plane, they saw the full extent of the devastation beneath them. But it was a perilous trip and the only aircraft that flew above East Anglia that day in the high winds.

Although Mr Amyes was severely sick and the photographic glass plates had to be wedged so that they did not smash in the buffeting, they swooped down the whole stretch of Norfolk's devastated coastline bringing back a unique story and horrifying pictures.

Twenty years after the event Mr Rudd recalled: 'It was the worst trip I have had in my life.'

Ten miles out over the sea, before the aircraft turned for its long disaster run, spray form the sea was striking the plane at 1000 feet.

The EDP had been inundated with calls of the dangers and deployed a team of reporters and photographers, who worked round the clock to cover the unfolding tragedy.

In the aftermath of the storm, it became difficult to assess the death toll. Many bodies were not recovered for weeks.

Almost forgotten lay the fate of the Guava. Only a week later did people begin to ask of its welfare. The trawler and its crew of 11 were never seen again.

As people began to look forward, they also began to ask questions: of the lack of warning; of the state of their sea defences; over fears of a repeat of the freak weather conditions that devastated their towns and villages and left so many of their friends and family dead.

The lack of a detailed warning left a large number of people deeply hurt and angry. The same question – why weren't we warned – rang out from scores of towns and villages, not only across Norfolk and Suffolk but all along Britain's east coast.

It was a valid question.

Long before the surge hit Norfolk, it had already swamped parts of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. At least the Norfolk river authorities did try to warn Essex after the county had been hit.

For many weeks after the disaster, the absence of general flood warnings to the public caused a lot of controversy. The Meteorological Office stated that a warning was sent by telephone from the Central Forecasting Office at Dunstable in Bedfordshire at 11.30am on January 31.

The warning, despatched to the Great Ouse Catchment Board and the East Suffolk and Norfolk River Boards, read: 'Exceptionally strong north-west to north winds becoming established over the North Sea.'

The Meteorological Office insisted that its responsibility ended there and it w sup to the River Boards to decide upon subsequent action.

One of the lessons learned from the 1953 floods was with the introduction of an effective warning system, the Storm Tide Warning Service.

But on the weekend of January 31-February 1, 1953, there was no such widespread warning made available to the public, leaving them totally unawares and unprepared for the pending disaster. In some areas, personnel took it upon themselves to issue an alert.

As the water rose in King's Lynn, harbourmaster Capt J. Nicholson was becoming increasingly anxious. The water was already lapping the top of the banks, even though the top of the tide was along way off.

He contacted the local police chief – Supt Calvert – and a flood warning went out, via police cars touring the threatened districts, broadcasting the message of impending danger over loudspeakers.